Teaching Myself Polish | A Four Month Update

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15.04.2020

Back in December I decided that I wanted to make the time to learn Polish. I wrote a little bit about why I want to learn Polish and how I planned to go about doing so in this blog post. Four months in, I thought I’d share a little update on my progress so far.

I am loosely following the Fluent Forever method of language learning using Anki rather than the FF app. I tried to download the app but discovered that it requires Google Play Services to run on Android, and I run a custom ROM without GAPPS. Since Anki is open-source and what Gabriel Wyner developed the method with in the first place, I have just kept things simple. I prefer to steer clear of walled gardens anyway, as I prefer to own my own data and be able to move it around as I see fit.

I say I have followed the Fluent Forever method loosely, as I didn’t bother trying to tie words to images like Wyner suggests. Creating image based cards is very time consuming and all the media attachments make decks pretty bloated, but those weren’t the main reasons I didn’t use images. I didn’t use images for consistency as – and I think Wyner states this himself – it’s not actually helpful to use images once you get beyond a certain point. It’s very hard to find an unambiguous and instantly recognisable image for many concepts and words, and so I knew the image method would eventually break down. Furthermore, overwhelmed by the time required to create image based cards, I put off getting started with Anki and Polish for a couple of years after I first read the book. Sometimes it’s good to just get going with something rather than dithering in pursuit of perfection. I did make myself a pronunciation deck based on the Polish IPA though, and have found that really helpful. I review that deck alongside my main Polish deck whenever reviews pop up.


I have built myself a custom deck in Anki rather than using someone else’s. The benefit of this approach is that my vocabulary list is personalised and I can build it up as I go, either on my phone using the Android app, or on my desktop using the Windows app. I built my deck by mining a little holiday phrase book for the most common words. For every entry Anki creates two cards for me, so that I am testing myself from English to Polish and vice versa. I have only ever learned vocabulary from target language to English, which means that I can translate but not produce in French, German and Russian – the other languages I have a little bit of experience with. Learning vocabulary from target language to English and the other way around has really helped embed the language in my mind, so even though I don’t use images I can still instantly recall the words in Polish when I see the English. For example I have got to the stage where I can test myself in my everyday life, picking up a fork to eat dinner and thinking ‘widelec’ without the lag I have with French and German where I only learned vocabulary in translation from target language to English.

I use ‘type the answer’ cards so that I hold myself accountable and study actively rather than passively, and it’s been very effective. Some days are really frustrating as I make spelling mistake after spelling mistake and end up with a lot of repeated reviews, but it’s great for my long term vocabulary retention. I have also customised my deck through HTML and CSS as the default styling in Anki makes my eyes bleed with the nineties web colours and fonts. I figured that if I’m going to be spending 30 to 45 minutes a day in Anki, it’s worth spending time on the design so that it’s an enjoyable experience. Design matters.


In my first four months I studied 2396 new cards, but since there are two cards per word that’s only 1198 new words and conjugations. This is less than I thought I would learn in the first few months, but I had failed to factor in learning two cards per word (oops) as well as how hard it is to learn and retain 40 new words every single day. I average about 20 new cards a day now, which feels manageable. Much more than that and my spelling and retention of new material becomes atrocious. Some days are easy – especially if the vocabulary I’m learning is based on loan words from French or English – and other days are a mangle of grunt work and przy-skrzy-dzic.

Despite making slower progress than I had initially thought I would, I have managed to maintain my enthusiasm and a 99% streak on daily practice. I missed one day as I got in from filming an event late one evening at the start of March and forgot to study. I’m still kicking myself over that missed day! My first words include 1000 of the most frequently used words in Polish, and I have experienced a big confidence boost by focusing on building my vocabulary as my first step in learning Polish. The Fluent Forever method has you learning vocabulary using spaced repetition with frequency lists so that you can build a bank of words and then go out and find source material that you find interesting, skipping the children’s books that a more traditional approach to language learning would require of you. With 1000 words in my toolkit, I am starting to get to the stage where I can understand basic news articles, blog posts and photo captions written by some of the Polish photographers I follow on Instagram. I am also starting to notice patterns in vocabulary, and find it interesting to spot the etymology of certain words. For example the Polish word for ‘trainers’ or ‘sneakers’ is ‘adidasy’ from the manufacturer, while the word for ‘makeup’ comes from the French – ‘makijaż’

My main goal with Polish is to be able to read novels and online articles, as well as to speak at a level that will allow me to go about everyday life outside the main cities when I next visit. If your goals are to be able to speak fluently and listen to podcasts, or you dislike repetitive tasks, you might choose a different approach to language learning. For me Anki and the Fluent Forever method of targeting vocabulary and then learning grammar in situ suits my goals and personality type very well. I don’t mind creating cards, and I also enjoy the gamification of spaced repetition and maintaining a daily streak.

I finished the cards in my deck about three weeks ago, and so yesterday I pulled my big dictionary down from the shelf on which it has sat since I finished my PhD back in 2014 and set about adding new words. I am adding a page at a time from each letter to Anki, skipping words that are really obscure and focusing instead on words I think will be helpful. Now that I have my first 1000 words I’m not being quite so systematic about sticking to frequency lists, but building my vocabulary based on instinct and interest instead.

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